Belated organisation resulted in us ending up staying in Ardales, a Pueblo Blanco (White Village) 20 minutes drive from El Chorro. When I mentioned this to the guy at the car hire place (Helle Hollis, well organised and to be recommended) I got a knowing look and an "Ahh". He offered a free upgrade on the car (default was a titchy Toyota Aygo), but something in me suggested "no". We'll stick with the small one. He nodded approvingly. I should have noticed.
Built on a hill surrounding what used to be a Roman/Moorish/Spanish fort, Ardales was a bit of a shock. Drive to it was dead easy. Driving through it was a nightmare. Ridiculously narrow, mirror scraping - I hesitate to call them streets - alleyways, typically on 30%+ slopes, winding like corkscrews and with what the locals called 'eccentric' parking. The only way up for the underpowered Aygo was with a good run-up and fervent prayers that nothing was blocking the alley. Or even worse coming down. Frankly, doing that route twice a day was the most stressful bit of the trip, climbing not withstanding.
So, we got to the 'Ice Cave' as John named it. When the outside temperature is in the 40s - apparently typical in the summer - a 20 degree drop as you go into the house is great. When the outside temperature is in the 20s? Not so good. Having to layer-up with fleeces at the front door was quite surreal. There was one warm spot. The roof terrace with its glorious view over Ardales.
A week before coming out we'd learned that the long closed Caminito del Rey was due to be reopened the day after our arrival. Brilliant timing! Even better the Ardales locals seemed to think that it was a good enough excuse to fiesta, so the day we arrived the town was due to party. Soon as it was dark, we were off down to the town square to see what the locals were up to. Drinking (a bit), walking (frequently), talking (incessantly), shouting (increasingly), babies, toddler, kids, teenagers, adults, wrinklies, the lot. There can't have been anyone left indoors. After a couple of beers (very good too), John and I retired back to the Ice Cave, but apparently the do went on till at least 4am.
Sunday was down to business. Off down to El Chorro in search of its fabled rock. One thing that did surprise us was how green the landscape was. This was the 'hot end' of Spain, but you wouldn't have guessed it from looking around at the grass, trees and fields. OK, the last week had been drenched with rain (the first lucky escape - I'd almost booked that week instead of this one), but even so...
The difference one letter makes. I'd looked in the guide and spotted Sector Suiza as well endowed with easy routes for us to get started on. A quick look at the map suggested the best approach. Off we set, full of anticipation. Down a wide track - shall we take a short cut through the wood? There's a good path. We could see the crag ahead. You really couldn't miss it! We headed through the trees, along some narrow paths and popped out just as I planned. Sector Suizo. There it is. Except it doesn't really look anything like what I expected. A lot steeper for a start. Hmm. Perhaps it's more down this way? No. Up this way? Nope. And why are we nearly back in El Chorro village? Then it dawns. This is Sector Suizo. We wanted Sector Suiza. See the difference? Sector Suiza is all the way back up the hill. Bugger, should have stay on the big track.
So despite the early start, we got to our chosen routes just about as the temperature was starting to climb. The air was reasonably cool, but in the sun it was like standing too close to a barbeque. At least it didn't seem too busy and we had our choice of routes, so we started ticking. "O Sole Mio" (4 *), "Los Timbales" (4, Rockfax Top 50), "Spaguetti Napoletana" (4+ *) passed pretty quickly and pleasantly. The rock was less featured than we'd previously found in Spain, but very solid and not too polished.
After a lazy lunch in the shade, we moved onto "Tiramisu" (5+ *) and then "Flan de Caramelo" (5 *) appropriately enough - both excellent routes deserving and extra star at least. At that point, the call of the beer became too much and we packed up and headed for the El Chorro station bar. A good start, despite the lexical cock-up.
The next day, we thought we'd try an outlying crag near Ardales rather than going down to El Chorro again. Turon has a couple of good looking routes (Rockfax Top 50) including the the multipitch "Julay Lama" (5+). A beautiful walk-in brought us to the base of the climbs.
As usual, I'd volunteered for the first pitch and as I stood at the base of this pristine sweep of limestone two things became obvious. Or perhap to be more precise, obvious by their absence. Any discernible holds and anything resembling a reasonable density of bolts. The first bolt was higher than the top of Windgather with just friction climbing on (supposedly) easy-angled rock to reach it. Still, this pitch was supposed to be just 4+ so how hard can it be? I stacked the deck in my favour by donning my new tight shoes and set off. Absorbing. Lot of leading in recent weeks meant my head was OK - I wasn't constantly looking to see where the next bolt was. The moves were not obvious, but all there, often relying on lay-aways on the edges of sharp water runnels to make progress. Certainly, it was pretty irreversable, so up was the only option till I reached the belay. That was good! But 4 bolts in 28 fairly precarious meters is a bit 'thin'. I was glad John had the next crux 5+ pitch! The slab was distinctly concave with an obvious blank bulge near the top, so this was going to be interesting.
John take up the story...
Having precariously followed Marek's lead, I was pleased to reach the relative safety of the precarious perch. Marek had deftly stowed the rope neatly in loops to avoid snags and as I was to set off, i thought, "Oh!, perhaps those extra quick draws will come in handy". Then off I precariously went. The route description mentioned going off to the right at some point and so after a couple of clips I found I was stretching left to get the next bolt. Then after about 4 metres further climbing with the slab steepening, I saw the next bolt in a blank section of rock. No way my short ape index could reach that and so with a deep breath on I went to the next bolt a further 3 or 4 metres and the relative security of a hanging belay. Marek following, seeming to be not too critical of me missing out one clip!
For sport climbing John prefers a GriGri for belaying. OK, that's fine, but on multipitch routes there a complication. You have to ab down. Can't do that with a GriGri. Woops. Fortunately I haven't got a GriGri otherwise it might have been messy, but with a combination of lowering and abbing, we both managed to to end up at the bottom in one piece.
Tight shoes are great when you are climbing up, but are miserable for standing around on multipitch belays and abbing. By the time I was at the bottom I was desparate to get them off. The heat wasn't helping either. Definately signs of bruised nails there. Bugger. It's only day two, too.
The route had been 'entertaining' but we were both a bit adrenalined-out and the other plausible route ("An absorbing and technical pitch...") looked at least as entertaining as the last one. My toes were hurting, so we decided to go an paddle in the river and then play tourist in Carratraca - or at least its bar - down the valley.
Carratraca is a bit bigger than Ardales, but has similar parking challenges. In fact most parking seemed to be confined to just outside the bar with what turned out to be a LIFO (Last In First Out) basis. Since we arrived in the middle of the siesta, we were pretty much 'first in'. Come 5pm and siesta ends and before we woke up to the implications, the bar was full (babies, toddlers, kids, adults, wrinklies, dogs) and we were destined to be 'last out'. Whenever that would be. Hopefully before 4am. Then our luck turned - one last wrinky straggler arrived, but in an electric wheel chair. A big electric wheelchair. Too big to get between all the cars. Much Iberian passion was unleashed at this point by his female companion which resulted in some deep sighing, temporary abandonment of domino games, and a way was cleared for the wheelchair. We saw our chance and we weren't going to miss it. We were out and heading back to our cosy roof terrace for tapas and wine in the last light of the setting sun.
At least it wasn't ours this time. The opening of the Caminito del Ray in El Chorro, as celebrated in Ardales the day before, didn't prevent some Iberian highways planner from deciding that this week was a good week to close the only road from Ardales to El Chorro for widening or something. 5km from El Chorro, we came over the pass to be greeted by a barrier and instruction to take a 50km detour through Alora. Bugger. Was this going to be all week? Who knows. So on with the 'mellow hat' and back to Ardales (narrow windy road), on to Alora (main road) and on to Valle de Abdalajis (another narrow windy road). It was already hot when we got there. Full on south facing crag, no shade. That's our excuse.
"Un Pobre Infeliz" (4+ Top 50) looked like a good start. A quick look at the topo and I was geared up and ready to go. You must be joking! A massively high first bolt and no plausible holds on steep rock. I battled through some prickly undergrowth to get onto a detatch flake in hope of something, but all I got for my efforts was a leg and hand full of thorns. I retreated. This is ridiculous! There appeared to be another route (line of bolts) over to the left. That should be "El Olvillo del Osillo" (5+) according to the topo. I tried that - not sure why - and ground to a halt before the second bolt. Big rockovers onto slopey holds? My head wasn't there after that first failure, so over to John....
Well, it's a bit of a blur! Thin climbing and big step ups but all there. Progress was good, so good that I seemed to have passed the lower off! At least I couldn't find it. I looked up to see above at least 5 bolts and probably more above the small roof. Whoops, I had only 2 quick draws left. Where is the lower off? Oh well! I selected a bale out biner ( tears in my eyes as I sacrificed a good one from a quick draw) and proceeded to be lowered off. Marek chose not to demonstrate where I had made my mistake.< Eventually the light dawn on us. The route descriptions were OK (as far as they went), but the topo was complete fiction. My attempt at the 'high first bolt' route was a hard direct start to a very long 6a route which branched off John's route. John had been on (and I had backed off) the 4+ route (sandbag) and then accidentally wandered onto the 6a route having missed the lower-off somewhere. Subsequent perusal of the Rockfax route database suggests that we weren't the first - and won't be the last - to get suckered by the fiction of page 167 of the guide and the mythical lower-off chains of "Un Pobre Infeliz".
So I looked up 'pobre infeliz': 'Somone you feel sorry for' or perhaps from the Yiddish: 'A dolt who is a habitual bungler'. Hmm, is there a joke here?
We were going to experience the famous Caminito del Rey. Early indication were that although 'tourists' had to pre-book a visit and get bussed in (or out), climbers would be free to use the walkway as long as they could show third party liability insurance. We were set. A modicum of climbing gear in the rucksacks and a BMC insurance policy got us past the first checkpoint in the village. A mile further on we got to the walkway start above the famous 'Green Bridge'. In a little hut was a girl. The girl who said "No".
"You have no helmets. You can't go on the walkway without helmets."
"Most climber here don't have helmets! This isn't the Alps!"
"OK, can we use a couple of your helmets?" (There was a big box full of them at the first checkpoint)
"No, they have to be booked in advance".
"What about ones from people coming off the walkway. They don't need them any more."
And so it goes. We gave up. It wasn't all bad though. Someone somewhere had come to the conclusion that closing the road from Ardales to El Chorro on the week the Caminito was opened was not such good idea, particularly since the bus between the two ends of the gorge needed to get up and down that road. So it was open again. We drove round to the other access point thinking we could at least see what the other end looked like. After a short walk through the national park forest we were at another checkpoint. With security guards. And a sensible guy who said "Yes. I'll Take you part of the way through even thought you haven't booked and don't have helmets." Nice guy. So we got to walk at least part of the Caminito del Rey. On the way back, we espied a track heading in an interesting direction - back round to the gorge. Might be interesting. We followed it up. Looked well used, but why? Near the top there was an array of beehives. OK. Is that it? As the track petered out, John followed his nose and suddenly we were above the gorge, looking down on an unxpected view of two gorges separted by a wide grassy bowl. We could see the lower, southern gorge above El Chorro with its distinctive bridge. Griffin vultures (so John said) wheeling above the cliffs of Makindromo and Los Cotos. And in the distance, the array of lakes and reservoirs feeding the hydro scheme which gave birth to the Caminito del Rey in the first place.
It wasn't such a wasted day after all.